When the Scottish parliament was set up by Tony Blair in 1999, it seemed as if Labour would govern Holyrood for the foreseeable future. The Scottish Tories were a contradiction in terms. Devolution was sold as a device that would kill nationalism ‘stone dead’. Suffice to say, this plan did not quite work. The Scottish National party took power in 2007, the Tories were resurrected as the new opposition and it was Scottish Labour that ended up on the brink of extinction. Now, for the first time in two decades, Scottish Labour is on the up, with a new party leader. Anas Sarwar, 38, was elected in February so has not had long to prepare for the campaign. We meet in Edinburgh, a few days after a video went viral that showed him dancing enthusiastically to Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk’ at an open-air dance class.
‘Even my biggest critic would accept that I look like the leader that’s enjoying this campaign the most,’ he says. He had so little notice that he had no option but to act on instinct: ‘I can just be myself in the campaign, doing what I feel is the right thing.’ Sarwar’s dancing stunt, and his performance in the TV debates, has reminded some of former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson. She made the once-moribund Scottish Conservatives the main opposition at Holyrood. She has now, aged 42, retired to the House of Lords. Her replacement, Douglas Ross, has been something of a flop on the campaign trail. His attempt to counter Sarwar’s dance video by showing cameras his own dance moves to Atomic Kitten’s ‘Whole Again’ only served to underline his political misery.
Who should a committed Scottish unionist vote for now? Perhaps ask Eddie Barnes, Davidson’s long-standing adviser. I understand that he has spent the campaign advising Sarwar — and he’s unlikely to be the only Tory doing his bit for Labour in this election. Many will support whoever is most likely to deny the SNP a majority. Sarwar lists four aims, which also show his party’s predicament. ‘Survival. Relevance. Credible opposition. Credible alternative. I think we can complete three out of the four phases of that in this election campaign,’ he says. He’s frank about the fact that the fourth will take more time. ‘We’re going to use the next five years that follow this election campaign to build that credible alternative so we can compete to have a Labour government and a Labour first minister.’
While the Tories are campaigning on a ‘no referendum’ platform, Sarwar barely mentions the constitution. He argues that this is a ‘pandemic election’ and that he wants to talk to ‘people who don’t agree with me’. His critics would say that he’s avoiding the topic because many Scottish Labour voters now back independence — as many as 31 per cent, according to a recent poll. It’s a difficult issue for Scottish Labour: his last two predecessors often tied themselves in knots over a potential referendum. ‘There have been occasions when the party has allowed a feeling of ambiguity or a perception of ambiguity,’ he concedes. ‘That has, I think, damaged us.’
Another attention-grabbing part of the Sarwar campaign is his decision to stand in Nicola Sturgeon’s seat in Glasgow Southside. The Holyrood system has two types of MSP: those who represent the 73 constituencies and a further 56 who are elected on a top-up list. Politicians who are placed on the top of any party’s list are pretty much guaranteed re-election so they can also chance standing in a risky constituency. Sarwar says Southside is his home (his father, Mohammad Sarwar, was a Glasgow MP) and that campaigning there is ‘giving some credible opposition’. His team is realistic about his chances of actually winning. That he went to school in Glasgow Southside — at the private Hutchesons’ Grammar, where he also sent his son — is not always a political asset. ‘It would be the honour of my life to be first minister. But I’m not going to pretend that I have some unique ability to reverse a 20-year downwards trend for the Labour party in Scotland in a ten-week period.’
He accepts that many voters have stopped seeing Labour as part of the country’s future. ‘Labour was something that their parents and their grandparents spoke about, very fondly, but it probably wasn’t relevant to their lives. They probably thought Labour was something that you thought about in terms of history rather than future … I think they can see that Labour is making a genuine effort to change.’
A large peach-coloured campaign bus pulls up to take Sarwar to Inverness. As we say goodbye, he is interrupted by a man drinking in a doorway. ‘You look like you’re having fun, buddy!’ he shouts back. As Sarwar boards the bus, it’s clear he is.
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